Afghanistan Elections Meet with Praise, Skepticism

by Ahmad Majidyar

American, U.N., and world leaders have hailed Saturday’s elections in Afghanistan as a major success, commending Afghan voters who braved the Taliban threats to cast ballots. Gen. David Petraeus said Afghans “sent a powerful message” to “violent extremists and terror networks” that the future belongs to the people. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon also praised the “success” of the polls. An E.U. statement described the conduct of the polls as “an important sign of Afghan sovereignty.”

But it is too soon to call Saturday’s election a “success.” The vote count has just begun and preliminary results are not due in for weeks. Low turnout, violence, and widespread fraud have already called into question the legitimacy of the polls. Indeed, on Sunday, Abdullah Abdullah, President Karzai’s main rival in last year’s presidential election, has cited widespread fraud, voter intimidation, and irregularity.

According to Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), only about 4 million of some 10 million eligible voters cast their ballots — far less turnout than in last year’s presidential polls. Insurgent attacks forced closure of polling centers not only in Taliban strongholds in the south, but also in the east and once peaceful provinces in the north. Some 8 percent of the 5,800 polling centers did not open on Election Day due to security problems. IEC had already shut slightly over 1,000 polling centers, denying about 2 million mostly rural Pashtuns in the south and east their right to vote. In the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar, insurgent attacks killed 34 people and wounded 23 others. The Taliban killed over 20 election workers on Election Day. Bodies of three IEC members kidnapped in northern Balkh province were found on Sunday. Forty-six election workers have also been injured.

The Election Complaints Commission has received hundreds of allegations of fraud and irregularities, and many candidates have already called into question the legitimacy of the future parliament. The Free and Fair Elections Foundation, the independent Afghan election-monitoring group, has reported “widespread irregularities.” In addition, many candidates alleged the election was flawed and accused candidates and IEC officials of involvement in irregularities. For example:

— Abdul Kabir Ranjbar, a legislator from Kabul who won a seat in the 2005 parliamentary vote, said fake voting cards were used to favor certain candidates. “Even police and IEC officials were paid money,” he added.

— Shukria Barakzai, also an incumbenet, said the fraud in Saturday’s election was much worse than in last year’s election. “I think those candidates who were not fraudulent will have 5 to 6 seats in the next parliament.”

— Shehla Ata, another candidate, said warlords, the wealthy, and drug smugglers would occupy the next parliament.

— Saboor Farmali, also a candidate, said that in some areas ballot boxes were filled with votes long before the voting started. “IEC is to be blamed because, more than others, they received bribes,” he alleged. “Since the election was a fraud, the new parliament will also not be legitimate,” he said.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission says the closure of polling centers in peaceful regions is questionable. Approximately 2,000 people failed to vote due to early closure of four polling centers in the Taliban-free Yakawlang District of central Bamyan province. In addition, hundreds of thousands of fake voter cards have been seized across the country. Police arrested some election observers with 1,500 fake voting cards in different parts of southern Helmand province. The ink used to mark voters’ thumbs was easily washable, allowing multiple voting. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan on Saturday alleged that widespread poll fraud had taken place in southern Helmand province, a stronghold of the Taliban militants.The Independent Election Complaints Commission, for its part, says it has received 130 complaints in writing and over 1,500 by phone.

— Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

The Corner

The one and only.